Insurer seeks indemnification from child sexual abuse claims filed against diocese

Property Casualty 360 [New York, NY]

February 9, 2024

By Colleen Murphy

The Diocese of Trenton was sued by hundreds of victims, according to the complaint.

A lawsuit filed by Clyde & Co on behalf of Century Indemnity in New Jersey federal court seeks a declaration that the insurer has no duty to defend or indemnify the Diocese of Trenton or its schools and parishes against the hundreds of sex abuse claims of minors which have flooded in since the New Jersey Child Victims Act (CVA) opened a revival window for survivors.

Since the CVA opened a revival window for survivors of child sexual abuse, claims would have been time-barred. The Diocese of Trenton was sued under the CVA by hundreds of survivors of child sexual abuse, according to the complaint.

The CVA became law in December 2019. It allows survivors of child sexual abuse to bring civil lawsuits arising out of abuse until their 55th birthday. In addition, the law opened a revival window where survivors of any age could file lawsuits. The Diocese of Trenton has seen about 550 alleged victims assert sexual abuse claims and it has been named in more than 200 lawsuits under the CVA which alleged bodily injury, according to the complaint.

Century issued policies to the diocese from 1957 through 1972 covering certain accidents and occurrences. The insurer alleged that it has been defending both the diocese and its affiliated parishes and schools under a full reservation of rights. However, Century alleged that the diocese has not provided all of the information requested, according to the complaint.

Century is represented by Daren McNally and Marianne May of Clyde & Co. Counsel have not yet appeared for the defendants.

“The Century insurance policies cover accidents, not conduct that was tolerated or hidden,” McNally said in a statement emailed to the Law Journal. “The diocese has failed to provide the documentation required to show that it is entitled to coverage under the policies. We are filing this action so we can receive the information required to evaluate the claims.”

The relief sought by Century includes a declaration that it has no duty to indemnify the diocese or its individual parishes and schools to the extent that they do not arise from accidents or occurrences. The complaint also sought the same declaration for bodily injury as well as a declaration as to the number of occurrences associated with each claim.

“CVA complaints filed in the underlying claims allege intentional conduct and suggest that the diocese had broad institutional knowledge of the sexual abuse problem,” the complaint said. “This is consistent with allegations in similar lawsuits filed throughout the United States against other entities affiliated with the Catholic Church.”

The defendants have provided some information to Century about the underlying claims, according to the complaint, but Century alleged that information was incomplete or insufficient. Multiple sources were cited in the complaint, including a memoir written by Bruce Novozinsky, as well as reports by multiple news outlets which confirm the existence of secret files which are allowed under Vatican-issued secret legislation known as the Crimen Sollicitationis.

“Under Title V of the Crimen Sollicitationis, Church law imposed absolute secrecy concerning claims made to Church officials regarding clerical sex abuse and mandated the regular destruction of documents concerning such claims,” the complaint said.

The underlying claims have alleged, according to the complaint, that it is the Catholic Church’s policy of secrecy that fostered an environment in which sexual predation by clergy and other church representatives was implicitly condoned and actively covered up by church officials.

“At no time prior to the issuance of any of the insurance policies did anyone acting on behalf of the diocese advise Century about the then-existing and known problem of sexual molestation by people in positions of power and authority within the Catholic Church,” the complaint said. “Indeed, to this day, the diocese has never provided Century with a full accounting of the problem and the extent of sexual abuse committed by diocese employees and agents.”

The diocese publishes a list on its website of clergy who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse with a minor, according to the complaint. That list contains 31 names and was last updated on Dec. 11, 2023.

“Although the underlying claims allege different legal theories, including intentional torts, strict liability, and negligence, many of the underlying claims specifically allege that the diocese, and/or its parishes or schools, committed intentional conduct by hiring or not supervising clergy about whom they had notice regarding abuse of the plaintiff or other victims,” the complaint said. “In addition, many of the underlying claims specifically allege that the victim reported his or her abuse to clergy, agents, or employees of the diocese other than the perpetrator.”

The Diocese of Trenton declined to comment on pending litigation.

This suit was surfaced by Radar, ALM’s source for immediate alerting on just-filed cases in state and federal courts. Radar now offers state court coverage nationwide. Sign up today and be among the first to know about new suits in your region, practice area or client sector.